Is Optimism a Character Flaw or a Biblical Mandate? by Matt Sutton

Some people are simply obnoxiously optimistic.? A ship might be submerged to the gunnels and sinking fast, yet some eternally optimistic chap will still see fit to yell? ?Set the jib!? and ?Trim the mainsail!? Now, barring a miracle, the stark reality of the above situation only lends itself to one of two options: Either you start chucking water like mad and plug the hole, or you swan dive overboard and freestyle swim like you’re in the Olympics.? Rest assured, however, if you are foolish enough to busy yourself tending the sails while waist deep in water, you can pretty much cast aside worrying about tomorrow.? Miracles notwithstanding, you’re sunk.

On the other hand, there are some people who are a bit more pessimistic by nature.? On a particularly pessimistic day, they may be likened to an industrial strength desiccant that sucks out the last drop of hope until all that is left is a dry and arid wasteland.? Whenever you find yourself around these folks for any length of time, you can almost feel the hope being sucked out of your spirit.? It’s like spending an entire August afternoon standing on a freshly tarred parking lot in Phoenix, Arizona.

Now, all of us lie somewhere on the spectrum between industrial strength desiccant and obliviously obnoxious optimist.? Fortunately the population distribution seems relatively Gaussian in this respect?that simply means that it follows the old ?bell curve.?? What that means functionally is that most people are bunched somewhere around the middle of the spectrum, and therefore we seldom find ourselves bumping into anyone on either side of the two extremes. When we do, it certainly can be a memorable experience, though.?? However, my question is this: Is being squarely in the middle of the pessimistic/optimistic spectrum the Biblical ideal? Moreover, for someone like me, who more naturally gravitates towards the pessimistic side, is optimism purely a character trait embodied by some, or rather is it a characteristic the Bible endorses and encourages??

Allow me cast the question in one last form: If I consistently view life, all of life, through the lens of Scripture will I ?naturally? be more optimistic?? This is obviously not a trick question, and I’m sure you know the Sunday School answer, but lets step back and look at some of the Biblical evidence anyway.? The reason I want to try to build a Biblical structure for myself and for you is because the Sunday School answer to the above question may be straightforward and simple, but the implications for me aren’t necessarily so easily ignored.? If I become convinced that the Bible does indeed endorse an optimistic life outlook, and yet at some point I find myself slipping into a pessimistic attitude for any reason whatsoever, would I not in that instance be choosing to sin?? Moreover, aren’t bad attitudes or wrong internal motivations some of the most insidious of all sins to rid from ourselves?? Personally, I need all the firepower I can get my hands on in this area.? So, let’s start with Philippians 1:12-30 which reads:

?12. Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.? 14. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
?15.? It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.? 16. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.? 17. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.? 18. But what does it matter?? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motive or true, Christ is preached.? And because of this I rejoice.
?Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19. for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance, 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.? 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.? Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!? 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.? 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
?27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.? Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel. 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.? This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved ? and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

What has happened to Paul in verse 12 is that he has been arrested by the Romans for being obedient to Christ.? If you live in the West, try not to skim past this opening fact too quickly.? As foreign as it sounds, try to think about being arrested and thrown in jail for no other reason than being obedient to Christ.? This may not happen where you and I live right now, but nonetheless our brothers and sisters around the world face this very real possibility every day.? So how does Paul respond?? What model does he lay out for us?? What can we garner from his experience recorded in Philippians and apply to our own lives?? I see a number of things:?

  • Paul’s entire response squares perfectly with his teaching elsewhere on God’s absolute sovereignty and perfect goodness.? We actually see Paul living out Romans 8:28 here in Technicolor, not just dictating it to Tertius.
  • Paul demonstrates that obedience to Christ is always nonnegotiable.? In fact, while in prison he continues in the very same obedience that landed him in prison initially.??
  • Paul does not minimize, skew or ignore reality for the sake of optimism. Rather he embraces reality, yet he always acknowledges and always trusts the orchestration of events by God Almighty.? Consider how he responds to those preaching Christ out of selfish ambition.? Christ is preached!? The implication being God can use actions initiated by wrong motives to accomplish His purposes just as He can use the actions of the obedient; therefore, Paul has all the more reason to rejoice!
  • He does not go it alone, or credit his mindset to a ?naturally? optimistic bent.? He openly confesses his reliance on the prayers of the Philippians and the help given by the Spirit.? I think the optimism Paul displays is a supernatural optimism that flows from a mind renewed by the Spirit. Consequently, I don’t think it is an optimism that is reserved solely for the naturally optimistic individual, but rather through prayer and the infusion of God’s Word can become the mindset of any believer.? Lastly, natural optimism may look a lot like its supernatural counterpart, but in the end, like anything natural, it can often manifest itself in self-serving, self-sufficient or self-exalting ways.? This kind of natural optimism, no matter how polished or perfected, will not honor our Lord.
  • Paul does not infringe on God’s exclusive authority to direct events as He chooses, but rather He consistently acknowledges God’s gracious goodness towards those whom He has redeemed.? He lives his life, all of it, trusting his Lord.
  • Paul accepts hardship as part and parcel of the Christian experience.? Far from teaching a health and wealth theology, he forthrightly informs the Philippians that suffering is part of the Christian life. Yet even in the midst of suffering, joy in God’s provision is assumed.

So what do we make of all this?? If you are somewhat naturally pessimistic like me, my intention is certainly not to heap a load of guilt on your shoulders.? I know you probably already feel your pessimistic attitude may be somewhat amiss.? Likewise, though, if you are naturally optimistic, I encourage you, as with any natural bent that seems holy, not to lean too heavily on your natural tendencies without submitting them also to the reign of Christ.? For instance, I just so happen to be naturally quiet and reserved in personality, but that doesn’t directly equate at all to being Biblically meek and humble in heart.

So what do we do?? I think Paul outlines our attack succinctly in Romans 12:2 where he exhorts us to ?not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.??? Furthermore, we read that the Old Covenant kings were instructed to write out by hand for? themselves a copy of God’s law, to meditate on it day and night, and to keep it with them at all times.? If they did so, they were promised that things would go well for them and the generations that followed them.? So here is the unavoidable point that Scripture consistently makes.? No gains in holiness can be realized unless we saturate our minds with God’s Word, and moreover do so willingly and delightfully.? Do you struggle with this?? So do I.? Sometimes I struggle immensely with it, yet we have One who intercedes on our behalf.? So I encourage you, apply the old puritan adage, ?Pray until you pray? to Scripture reading as well.? Start now.? Don’t wait.? Get God’s Word into your mind and turn it over and over.? Do this however it works for you individually.? Lastly, with gentleness, compassion and without a heavy hand, encourage those around you to do the same, since encouragement often has a boomerang effect.

Before I draw this to a close, I am reminded of one more encouraging fact.? Look at the transformation of the Apostles over time as recorded in Scripture, particularly Peter, John and Paul.? Granted, they are Apostles and I’m aware of that.? But look at how the Spirit worked to transform them from mostly lowly men to foundational pillars of the Church. Read the Gospels and the read 1 and 2 Peter or John’s epistles.? In some ways they hardly sound like the same men. So where will you be in five or ten years time, assuming the Lord doesn’t return and you are still alive?? By God’s grace alone, I hope that I am in many ways not much at all like I am today.? I hope and pray that I am less given to fear and shortsightedness and more given to faith and perseverance.? With the Spirit’s help we will change.? In just a few breaths prior to the passage we quoted above, Paul promises this very truth.? Philippians 1:6 reads: ?Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.?? Renew your mind!? Be joyful always!? And remember that by God’s grace we can live our lives in Biblical optimism.?

Matt Sutton

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